Yemen is a special place. It’s beautiful, steeped in history and culturally fascinating. We have a brilliant team in Aden and Lahj, two regions in the south of the country that I visited last week. Many of our staff have worked with us for years and their knowledge, energy and commitment are truly inspirational.
But in recent years Yemen has been visited by horrendous conflict – a nasty civil war made nastier with the involvement of neighbouring states. The war is being experienced differently in different parts of the country. The south suffered its heaviest fighting three years ago, when the Houthis captured Aden and were then driven out by the Saudi-led coalition. By contrast, Sana’a, the capital city in the north, was being hit by airstrikes just last week. My colleagues describe parts of the northern governorate of Sa’ada as “flattened”.
In Aden and Lahj, there’s devastation everywhere. Building after building is a bombed-out carcass, including two of our offices. But the damage isn’t only physical. The economy is in tatters and many families are struggling to make ends meet. Some supplies and commodities are getting in, but the Yemeni rial has plummeted so much that most people can afford very little. The influx of displaced people from the frontlines has added to the pressure.
These are tough conditions for children to grow up in, with huge risks for their well-being and protection. Particularly striking for me were the struggles children confront in simply trying to get an education.
We visited two hugely overcrowded schools in Aden city – one for girls and one for boys. Some classes have over 100 children in them; that’s four to each desk. The girls’ school had been hit by explosive weapons earlier this month when a fight between neighbours strayed into the schoolyard. When we met them, the girls were full of excitement, hope and enthusiasm, but the headteacher told us they had been terrified that day, fleeing out of doors and windows in panic, and that the whole school was now tense with worry.
What happens when an airstrike flattens your school?
The first school we visited in Lahj was celebrating World Health Day with plays, singing and puppet shows on themes both familiar and unfamiliar to those of us with experience of British schools – how to eat healthily but also how to avoid cholera. But the last school we visited was hardly a school at all. It was a cluster of sweltering white tents that had been erected next to the obliterated remains of what was once a school building. Houthi armed forces had occupied the original school, then Saudi bombs had demolished it.
The students I spoke to – all girls in the afternoon shift – were energetic and joyful like those in Aden, giggling as they told me about their dreams of growing up to become doctors, teachers and social workers. But their learning conditions are abject and I found it hard to feel confident that those hopes will ever be realised.
The following day we spoke to the Heads of Education from the six southern governorates. They told us that the incidence of attacks on schools is rising and that children are threatened on their way to and from school as well. Some schools are being occupied by military forces, while others are homes to displaced families, used to store supplies or being repurposed as health centres or even as shops. In each case, the effect is to rob hundreds of children of their futures.
Save the Children is helping equip the schools it supports, as well as running teacher-training, psychosocial support, and re-enrolment campaigns and catch-up classes for students who’ve had to drop out. We’re also advocating across Yemen – and worldwide – for schools to be treated in the same way as hospitals and mosques are; that is, as protected spaces that should never come under attack and that shouldn’t be used for any purpose other than education.
One of our proud achievements internationally is our part in promoting the Safe Schools Declaration, which has now been signed by 73 states. The Declaration includes a commitment to a set of guidelines to protect schools and universities from military use during armed conflict. We and our partners are working with governments and non-government groups to get these guidelines properly understood and implemented. Had the Houthis not occupied that school in Lahj – or had the Saudis calculated the long-term harm that their airstrike would cause before letting their bombs fall – the school would still be standing today and those children’s futures would be that bit more hopeful.
What can the UK Government do?
The British Government is providing very generous aid to meet humanitarian needs in Yemen, and this is making a huge difference. But as an influential member of the international community, a significant ally to the Saudi-led Coalition, a supplier of arms that are being used in the conflict, and “penholder” on Yemen at the UN Security Council, the UK has a special responsibility on the politics too.
Britain needs to play it straight on Yemen. It needs to push without fear or favour for perpetrators of violations of international law to be held to account, for full and unfettered access for aid supplies, for commercial routes to be opened up and for peace talks to be driven forward. These things are needed not just for Yemeni children, but also to uphold the international rules-based system on which all our security depends.
The UK should also endorse the Safe Schools Declaration immediately. Without education, it is hard to have hope. With education, everything is possible.